As major-leaguers convene in Florida and Arizona for their annual spring training rites, all appears well with professional baseball. Players and owners reached a labor agreement last fall with nary a whisper of rancor, a rarity in recent decades. New television deals have set records. Ballparks, many brand-new, are full. Six different teams have won the last six World Series, giving at least the sheen of parity.
So why does G. Edward White think Major League Baseball faces a crisis?
White, a UVA law professor, author of the 1996 book Creating the National Pastime: Baseball Transforms Itself, 1903-1953, former college baseball player and lifelong fan, sounded the alarm for baseball in October as part of the “More Than the Score” lecture series, held before UVA home football games. He identified four major factors threatening the pro game:
- Youth participation is fading. Soccer has become “the reflexive sports activity” of America’s professional-class children, White says. Baseball is expensive, difficult to master, and embarrassingly public when kids drop the ball or strike out. Plus, there’s just not enough action to hold the attention of a video-game-paced generation.
- Large-market teams dominate the marketplace. Though it has been seven years since the well-heeled New York Yankees won a World Series, they remain perennial contenders. Less-wealthy teams can gear up for sporadic playoff runs, but few can afford to retain their star players for many years. Smaller-market teams like Pittsburgh and Kansas City are forced to scrape together rosters of lower-priced talent, leading to competitive imbalance.
- Steroids threaten the sport’s historical link to the past. Baseball’s leadership looked the other way when steroids entered the game, White says, happy to reap the short-term rewards of attention-grabbing home-run-record chases. Now, baseball must wrestle with how those records will be viewed in the light of widespread perceptions that the modern players were artificially aided in their pursuit. “The steroid problem is embarrassing for baseball, and it’s just insoluble,” White says.
- The racial and ethnic makeup of the game is changing. Despite outreach efforts, baseball has lost ground to football and basketball among African-American athletes since the 1970s, he said, with roster spots being claimed by Latino and now Asian players. “If African Americans end up being a tiny minority on major-league rosters by the middle of the century, the sport is not as representative of American culture as it once was,” White says.
So, if the former Amherst player—White played baseball there his freshman year—were to be named baseball czar, what would he prescribe?
His first edict would be to decree NFL-style revenue sharing, paired with a salary cap, to foster economic and competitive balance. Under the current system, “How in the world could you have a franchise like the Green Bay Packers in baseball?” he asks. Likewise, he would seek to lessen the disparity in local TV contracts.
Not that White is totally against having designated villains. “The Yankees are what every purist loves to hate, and I think that’s good,” he says. “But I don’t like the fact that some teams can almost never have a chance.”